The Feast of the Holy Innocents

December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorates the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. In England the day was known as Childermas (or Dyzemas) and was considered an ill-omened time; few would want, for example, to be married on that date. Not only was no business conducted on that day, but the day of the week on which it fell was deemed unlucky for the rest of the year. In Ireland it was Lá Crostna na Bliana, the “cross day of the year” when no new enterprise was begun. Many sailors would not sail on that day; on the Aran isles no one was buried on Childermas (or the day of the week on which it occurred); and in Cornwall to wash on that day was to doom one of your relatives to death. Childermas was also a day for ritual beatings. The seventeenth-century writer Gregorie notes the custom of whipping children in the morning of that day so that Herod’s murderousness “might stick the closer; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the crueltie again in kind.”

In the Middle Ages the Shearmen and Tailors’ Guild of Coventry took their part in the famous cycle of mystery plays staged annually at the feast of Corpus Christi. The Bible stories they were responsible for portraying included the Massacre of the Innocents. It is this story for which the song known as “The Coventry Carol” was written, sung in the pageant by women of Bethlehem trying to keep their children quiet lest their crying betray them to the murderous soldiers of King Herod.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day?

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

“By, by, lully, lullay.”

Herod the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day.

His men of might, in his own sight,

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee!

And ever morn and say,

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

“By, bye lully, lullay.”

The painting above by Pieter Brueghel sets the massacre in a Dutch village in the 16th century as if it were carried out by the occupying Spanish army.

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